Theatrhythm Final Bar Line 1
Image: Square Enix

The curtains are open and the stage is set. Theatrhythm Final Bar Line marks the return of the Final Fantasy rhythm series to Nintendo consoles after a 10-year break. We've had a chance to go hands-on with an upcoming demo for the game, which will be available on 1st February, and if the early goings-on is anything to go on, then this sequel is shaping up to be as much of a delight as the 3DS entries.

In the demo, we were able to try out two modes — Series Quests, which is open from the start, and Music Stages, which you unlock after beating your first song in Series Quests. Music Stages is pretty much the exact same as it was in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call: once you've unlocked the song, you can play it anytime you want on any difficulty you want. The demo allows you to unlock 30 songs, 30 characters, and level up your collection of cute characters to level 30 — and you can carry over your progress to the full game.

So we jumped right into Series Quests, a brand new mode for the Theatrhythm series. Expanding on the Series Mode from the first game and taking a note from Curtain Call's Quest Medley, Series Quests sees you playing through a particular game (or category's) music. But you have to get a key first to unlock a new Series Quest. Using the key on a game unlocks that quest and also gets you a handful of characters to play as from that particular entry, and you get more keys by playing through these quests.

We could only unlock songs and characters from six mainline games in the demo — Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIV, and Final Fantasy XV. All of the unlockable songs are returning tracks from previous Theatrhythm games, including the arcade-exclusive All-Star Carnival. All the party-building mechanics of Curtain Call make their return, with the ability to build five separate parties of four, and character level up very quickly — you'll get a party of four to level 30 in less than a few hours if you stick with them.

In Series Quests, you need to essentially "play through" your chosen Final Fantasy title in musical form. So if you pick Final Fantasy II first, for example, your first port of call is the game's battle theme — a callback to how the NES entry starts out. Or, with Final Fantasy XIV, you can pick one of three starting songs, which all represent one of the three main regions that you can choose to start in when beginning your adventure in the MMORPG. The demo only lets you play through the first few songs in each Series Quest — anywhere between three and six of them — but it was the perfect appetizer for a mode we can see ourselves having a lot of fun with.

What's of most interest with Final Bar Line, however, is the controls. Final Bar Line, unlike the two 3DS games, doesn't have any touchscreen controls at all — at least not in the demo version. Instead, notes can be activated by using any of the buttons on your Switch — including the shoulder buttons and the left and right joysticks. All of the same notes — like the simple red hits and the green notes where you have to hold down the button then let go at the right time — return, but there are notes where you have to use both joysticks and push them in different (or the same) direction, and sometimes you'll need to hold two buttons down at the same time for a period of time, but let go of one of them earlier than the other. Fortunately, there are a handful of control schemes you can play with, including a mode where only button presses are required (so no analogue sticks required).

We've got the stylus controls embedded in our musical brains here, so going buttons only took us a while to get used to. You could always go buttons-only in previous games, though, so depending on your preferred playstyle, it may take you more (or less) time to get used to this new play style. However, even in the demo, you have access to some accessibility options that can help adjust the timing of the Triggers if you keep hitting them too early or late. You can also play every single song on one of four difficulty options, and practice makes perfect, so you don't need to move up from Basic to Expert until you're ready to.

The demo is the perfect overture for what's shaping up to be a loving tribute to Final Fantasy's (and Square Enix's in general) musical legacy

Otherwise, this is the same Theatrhythm you all know and love. Just minutes into the demo, while we were playing through 'Four Hearts' from FFV, we had a stupidly huge grin on our face as the cute cardboard cutout characters ran across the field, attacking monsters as we hit the notes in time with the music. And we replayed many songs, from 'Fight On!' to 'The Rebel Army' multiple times, chasing the elusive Perfect Chain score and trying to get as many Rainbow Criticals as we could. It's the kind of addictive arcade-style gameplay we loved back on the 3DS, just on a bigger screen.

There are extra challenges in Series Quests which unlock items, cards, and all sorts. These require you to do more than just beat a stage — sometimes you have to use a certain number of abilities, while other times you need to find a treasure chest. This keeps incentivising you to come back and play the same quests over and over, sometimes on a higher difficulty, and even with the 30 songs we currently have, we can't help but keep lapping up the rewards and scores until we get the best numbers.

Both docked and undocked, the demo ran perfectly smoothly — but we actually preferred playing this undocked. The smaller screen made it easier for us to focus on the notes, especially with Final Bar Line's much busier backdrops. Again, this is another feature you can adjust by dimming the backgrounds, and both TV and handheld mode have separate Trigger input settings so you can try everything out ahead of the game's launch.

If you're planning on picking up Theatrhtyhm Final Bar Line, there's really no reason not to grab the demo beforehand. All of the CollectaCards, up to 2000 Rhythmia (points that act like currency), the summons, and airships you acquire can be carried over into the full game, so you can be stocked up and ready to rock. The demo is the perfect overture for what's shaping up to be a loving tribute to Final Fantasy's (and Square Enix's in general) musical legacy — as long as we can master those button controls.

The game launches on 16th February 2023, and the base game comes with 385 songs. The Digital Deluxe version has all of this plus an additional 27 songs and Season Pass 1, while the Premium Digital Deluxe Edition has all of the above along with all three Season passes. You'll be able to buy all DLC songs and packs separately, too.

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